The Money of Fools

In this four-part series, the phenomena of empty rhetoric and thoughtless, feel-good catch phrases employed by demagogues and ideologues are explored, dissected, and debunked.

Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that words are wise men's counters, but they are the money of fools.
That is as painfully true today as it was four centuries ago. Using words as vehicles to try to convey your meaning is very different from taking words so literally that the words use you and confuse you.
Take the simple phrase "rent control." If you take these words literally — as if they were money in the bank — you get a complete distortion of reality.
New York is the city with the oldest and strongest rent control laws in the nation. San Francisco is second. But if you look at cities with the highest average rents, New York is first and San Francisco is second. Obviously, "rent control" laws do not control rent.
If you check out the facts, instead of relying on words, you will discover that "gun control" laws do not control guns, the government's "stimulus" spending does not stimulate the economy and that many "compassionate" policies inflict cruel results, such as the destruction of the black family.
Do you know how many millions of people died in the war "to make the world safe for democracy" — a war that led to autocratic dynasties being replaced by totalitarian dictatorships that slaughtered far more of their own people than the dynasties had?
Warm, fuzzy words and phrases have an enormous advantage in politics. None has had such a long run of political success as "social justice."
The idea cannot be refuted because it has no specific meaning. Fighting it would be like trying to punch the fog. No wonder "social justice" has been such a political success for more than a century — and counting.
While the term has no defined meaning, it has emotionally powerful connotations. There is a strong sense that it is simply not right — that it is unjust — that some people are so much better off than others.
Justification, even as the term is used in printing and carpentry, means aligning one thing with another. But what is the standard to which we think incomes or other benefits should be aligned?
Is the person who has spent years in school goofing off, acting up or fighting — squandering the tens of thousands of dollars that the taxpayers have spent on his education — supposed to end up with his income aligned with that of the person who spent those same years studying to acquire knowledge and skills that would later be valuable to himself and to society at large?
Some advocates of "social justice" would argue that what is fundamentally unjust is that one person is born into circumstances that make that person's chances in life radically different from the chances that others have — through no fault of one and through no merit of the others.
Maybe the person who wasted educational opportunities and developed self-destructive behavior would have turned out differently if born into a different home or a different community.
That would of course be more just. But now we are no longer talking about "social" justice, unless we believe that it is all society's fault that different families and communities have different values and priorities — and that society can "solve" that "problem."
Nor can poverty or poor education explain such differences. There are individuals who were raised by parents who were both poor and poorly educated, but who pushed their children to get the education that the parents themselves never had. Many individuals and groups would not be where they are today without that.
All kinds of chance encounters — with particular people, information or circumstances — have marked turning points in many individual's lives, whether toward fulfillment or ruin.
None of these things is equal or can be made equal. If this is an injustice, it is not a "social" injustice because it is beyond the power of society.
You can talk or act as if society is both omniscient and omnipotent. But, to do so would be to let words become what Thomas Hobbes called them, "the money of fools."

Words are supposed to convey thoughts, but they can also obliterate thoughts and shut down thinking. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, a catchword can "delay further analysis for fifty years." Holmes also said, "think things, not words."
When you are satisfied to accept words, without thinking beyond those words to the things — the tangible realities of the world — you are confirming what philosopher Thomas Hobbes said in the 17th century, that words are wise men's counters but they are the money of fools.
Even in matters of life and death, too many people accept words instead of thinking, leaving themselves wide open to people who are clever at spinning words. The whole controversy about "health care reform" is a classic example.
"Health care" and medical care are not the same thing. The confusion between the two spreads more confusion, when advocates of government-run medical care point to longer life expectancies in some other countries where government runs the medical system.
Health care affects longevity, but health care includes far more than medical care. Health care includes such things as diet, exercise and avoiding things that can shorten your life, such as drug addiction, reckless driving and homicide.
If you stop and think — which catchwords can deflect us from doing — it is clear that homicide and car crashes are not things that doctors can prevent. Moreover, if you compare longevity among countries, leaving out homicide and car crashes, Americans have the longest lifespan in the western world.
Why then are people talking about gross statistics on longevity, as a reason to change our medical care system? Since this is a life and death issue, we need to think about the realities of the world, not the clever words of spinmeisters trying to justify a government takeover of medical care.
American medical care leads the world in things like cancer survival rates, which medical care affects far more than it affects people's behavior that leads to obesity and narcotics addiction, as well as such other things as homicide and reckless driving.
But none of this is even thought about, when people simply go with the flow of catchwords, accepting those words as the money of fools.
Among the many other catchwords that shut down thinking are "the rich" and "the poor." When is somebody rich? When they have a lot of wealth. But, when politicians talk about taxing "the rich," they are not even talking about people's wealth, and what they are planning to tax are people's incomes, not their wealth.
If we stop and think, instead of going with the flow of catchwords, it is clear than income and wealth are different things. A billionaire can have zero income. Bill Gates lost $18 billion dollars in 2008 and Warren Buffett lost $25 billion. Their income might have been negative, for all I know. But, no matter how low their income was, they were not poor.
By the same token, people who have worked their way up, to the point where they have a substantial income in their later years, are not rich. In most cases, they never earned high incomes in their younger years and they will not be earning high incomes when they retire. A middle-aged or elderly couple making $125,000 each are not rich, even though politicians will tax away what they have earned at the end of decades of working their way up.
Similarly, most of the people who are called "the poor" are not poor. Their low incomes are as transient as the higher incomes of "the rich." Most of the people in the bottom 20 percent in income end up in the top half of the income distribution in later years. Far more of them reach the top 20 percent than remain in the bottom 20 percent over the years.
The grand fallacy in most discussions of income statistics is the assumption that the various income brackets represent enduring classes of people, rather than transients who start at the bottom in entry-level jobs and move up as they acquire more experience and skills.
But if we are going to base major government policies on confusions between medical care and health care, or on calling people "rich" and "poor" who are neither, then we have truly accepted words as the money of fools.

Among the many words that don't mean what they say, but which too many of us accept as if they did, are those staples of political discussion, "liberals" and "conservatives."
Most liberals are not liberal and most conservatives are not conservative. We might be better off just calling them X and Y, instead of imagining that we are really describing their philosophies. Moreover, like most confusion, it has consequences.
The late liberal Professor Tony Judt of New York University gave this definition of liberals: "A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior."
According to Professor Judt, liberals favor "keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose."
That is certainly in keeping with the dictionary definition of liberalism and with most contemporary liberals' vision of themselves. But, if we follow Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' admonition to "think things, not words" and look beyond the label to the tangible realities of the world, we find almost the exact opposite of what the word "liberal" is supposed to mean.
Most of us would probably regard the current administration in Washington — both the White House and the Congress — as "liberal," even though the word "progressive" may be more in vogue.
Does the sweeping legislation empowering federal officials to tell doctors, patients, hospitals, and insurance companies what to do, when it comes to medical care, sound like leaving individuals the maximum space to live their lives as they choose?
Communities that have had overwhelmingly liberal elected officials for decades abound in nanny state regulations, micro-managing everything from home-building to garbage collection. San Francisco is a classic example. Among its innumerable micro-managing laws is one recently passed requiring that gas stations must remove the little levers that allow motorists to pump gas into their cars without having to hold the nozzle.
Liberals are usually willing to let people violate the traditional standards of the larger society but crack down on those who dare to violate liberals' own notions and fetishes.
Our academic institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by liberals. They feature speech codes that punish politically incorrect statements. Even to apply to many colleges and universities, students must have spent time as "volunteers" for activities arbitrarily defined by admissions committees as "community service."
As for conservatism, it has no specific political meaning, because everything depends on what you are trying to conserve. In the last days of the Soviet Union, those who were trying to maintain the Communist system were widely — and correctly — described as "conservatives," though they had nothing in common with such conservatives as William F. Buckley or Milton Friedman.
Professor Friedman for years fought a losing battle against being labeled a conservative. He considered himself a liberal in the original sense of the word and wrote a book titled "The Tyranny of the Status Quo." Friedman proposed radical changes in things ranging from the public schools to the Federal Reserve System.
But he is remembered today as one of the great conservatives of our time. Great, yes. But conservative? It depends on what you mean by conservative.
Conservatism, in its original meaning, would require preserving the welfare state and widespread government intervention in the economy. Neither Milton Friedman nor most of the other people designated as conservatives today want that.
Liberals often flatter themselves with having the generosity that the word implies. Many of them might be shocked to discover that Ronald Reagan donated a higher percentage of his income to charity than either Ted Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nor was this unusual. Conservatives in general donate more of their income and their time to charitable endeavors and donate far more blood.
We are probably stuck with having to use words like liberal and conservative. But we can at least recognize them as nothing more than political flags of convenience. We need not accept these words literally, as the money of fools.

One of the many words that sound so attractive, to people who do not think beyond the word, is "disarmament."
Wouldn't it be better to live in a world where countries were not armed to the teeth, especially when they are armed with nuclear weapons?  Of course it would.
But the only country we can disarm is our own.  The only countries we might be able to persuade to disarm are countries that intend no harm in the first place.  Those countries that do intend to harm others — and we know all too well that they exist — would be delighted to have all their victims disarmed.
What if we can just get nuclear disarmament?
Again, we need to think beyond the word to the realities of the world, so that we do not simply accept words as what Thomas Hobbes called the money of fools.
Had there been no nuclear weapons created during World War II, that would have given an overwhelming military advantage in the postwar world to countries with large and well equipped armies. Especially after the U.S. Army withdrew from Europe, following the end of World War II, there was nothing to stop Stalin's army from marching right across the continent to the Atlantic Ocean.
The American troops that remained in Western Europe were not enough to stop the Soviet army.  But they were enough that their slaughter by the Russians would have risked nuclear war with the United States.
Western Europe has had one of its longest periods of peace under the protection of the American nuclear umbrella.  Japan, one of the biggest and most cruel conquerors of the 20th century, has become a peaceful nation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the real world, the question of whether nuclear disarmament is desirable or undesirable is utterly irrelevant because it is simply not possible, except in words — and we would truly be fools to accept such words at the risk of our lives.
Even if every nuclear weapon on the planet were destroyed — and how could we be sure that that had happened? — this would still not destroy the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons.
Those countries with aggressive intentions towards other countries need only choose the time when they would put their knowledge of nuclear weapons to use, and have the world at their mercy.
Once they had nuclear weapons, they could threaten annihilation to any other nation that started to produce offsetting nuclear weapons.
Why then is President Barack Obama pursuing an international nuclear disarmament agreement?  It cannot be because he thinks it will work.  Even if he were foolish enough to believe that, virtually anybody in the Pentagon can tell him why it won't.
His political advisors, however, can tell him how great that can be for him personally — if he doesn't already know that.  It would be "historic" and an "achievement," just like ObamaCare.
His political base — the young, the left and the thoughtless — would be thrilled and energized.  That can translate into money donated to his campaign coffers and people willing to walk the precincts to get out the vote for him in the 2012 elections.
It is by no means an irrational thing to do, from Obama's self-centered perspective.
But what does it say about those who take his words literally, who accept those words as, in Thomas Hobbes' words, the money of fools?
First of all, there may be more of such people today than in the past, as a result of the dumbing down of education and the politicizing of education at all levels with anti-nuclear propaganda, along with other propaganda of the left.
International disarmament has long been a favorite crusade of the left, before as well as after the age of nuclear weapons.  The period between the two World Wars were full of popular disarmament agreements and renunciations of war.
In fact, such pious agreements contributed to the outbreak of war.  Because some nations adhered to these agreements and others did not, the military advantage swung to the latter, who started the war — in which tens of millions of human beings died.
What a price to pay for accepting words as the money of fools.

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He has published dozens of books on economics, education, race, and other topics. His most recent book is The Housing Boom and Bust, from April 2009.

6 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!"

Sounds to me an aweful lot like: "From each according to his ability...".

Why is it that one of the most socialist statements of any president up to that time, is still quoted as some great and profound statement of individual service. We should never be asked to live, or to toil, for the benefit of another without just compensation. If we are asked to work for our country we are being asked to be volunteer as slaves of the state.
Sir, and I do mean Sir, I have rated this article a 5. With your permission, (like voting) Can I do it fifty or a hundred times??
Very good. To the many good examples of misleading warm, fuzzy words, Thomas Sowell might have added renewable energy, green jobs, democracy, social consciousness, organic food, and living wage.

There are also the buzz words that falsely imply bad and repugnant meanings as in CO2 pollution, dirty coal, man-made chemicals, cowboy capitalism, and unregulated markets. For instance, coal can be dirty, but with the required use of smokestack scrubbing in American industry, it is not dirty at the output side. Both man-made and natural chemicals can be harmful, not just man-made chemicals. CO2 is neither harmful to man nor to the environment. It is a harmless plant fertilizer. Free-market capitalism has been responsible for an incalculable improvement in the quality of human life by increasing our lifespan, improving our comforts, increasing our security, and offering us a huge improvement in entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Cowboys must really be good then, not bad.
I would rate this a 10 if the option existed.
For decades I've watched in frustration as people have become more and more programed to a point where it is often impossible to have a coherent conversation. Actual thoughts and ideas have been replaced by the catch phrase of the day, cliches, and 'words of fools'.

I attended college late in life, which gave me a great opportunity to see, first hand, how our children are being educated. What I witnessed during my years in school makes our state of affairs somewhat understandable to me. Our young people are being systematically brainwashed into a collective, anti-American, anti-Western way of thinking. I use the word 'thinking' very loosely since most did not have any thoughts of their own. Many were like zombies holding up worn out signs such as "No blood for oil" or "Stop the slaughter of women and children" or "No Nukes". Being an admirer of Socrates and his method of questioning, I would regularly approach the students who were protesting one thing or another and very politely point out that since there is such a difference in our ages, perhaps they could explain to me exactly what that sign means. Needless to say, I never did get one coherent, rational, understandable answer, just the repetition of "words of fools"

I stood in the lobby of my school a few days after the 9/11 attacks in shock and horror as I listened to a student say to me boldly, "The people, well...... I do feel bad for them but I'm glad to see that symbol of capitalism go down". Another explained to me that, "now we know what's it's like. We always do the same thing around the world"

I did not stay at school that day but instead walked to the Ground Zero area and watched as volunteers and firefighters, covered in soot, loaded trucks of debris and drove up the Westside Highway. It was raining but I stood there for hours trying to absorb all that was happening. It was so hard to believe that the debris I was looking at contained the remains of those whose lives had just ended so suddenly.

The impact of this devastating assault on innocent civilians and the thoughtless, ignorant comments of my fellow students was almost too much to bear.

I guess it is obvious that this article certainly hit home for me. I want to thank you, Mr Sowell, for adding some clarity and sanity into this upside down world we live in. People in our country have to learn how to think, analyze, and understand the full meaning of the words and slogans used by those whose aim it is to indoctrinate.
How about "6", "8" "10" ?!?!?!?

In my young 61 years, this is head and shoulders THE BEST article of it's kind I have ever read.

It paints a broad, thorough, clear picture with a small brush. In other parts of the world, 10 year olds could read and understand it. In the US, reasonably non-brain-dead adults could read it, as well as some younger ones not 'educated' in public schools.

I keep thinkin', "What if...", "What if....", What if..."

"What if" we could could get people to read this by the tens of thousands? What if I can get 2 friends to read it? One relative?

As the song went, Don't know much about history...but what a wonderful world this would be."

Thank you sir. The fairy dust of genius....
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.